Originally published here.
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Sweet/Vicious doesn’t sound meaningful: it’s sold as a rape revenge superhero show for Millennials. And, yeah, that’s pretty much what it is. But it’s also a candid and unblinking examination of rape culture on college campuses, and a powerful tribute to survivors of sexual assault. It’s what the best stories can be: current and daring.
Sweet/Vicious offers a heightened universe – saturated with color, rich with sardonic language and impossible characters. It’s a genre show, no doubt: Jules and Ophelia are black-masked and hooded vigilantes with skill sets that give them a physical advantage often far beyond the hulking rapists they target.
But beyond the candy-colored superhero stuff, there’s something very real and difficult about Sweet/Vicious. Sure, these are highly capable vigilantes who shoot off implausibly clever dialogue at a rapid-fire rate, but they’re also fully actualized women dealing with a terribly real crisis.
And they’re friends. Friendship’s a vital part of Sweet/Vicious, the only real superpower Jules and Ophelia possess. Their friendship – forged in unlikely origins – is the stuff of legend. Jules (Eliza Bennett) is a warm, dimpled sorority sister who was raped by her best friend’s boyfriend, Nate (Dylan McTee). She feels she can’t tell Nate’s girlfriend (Aisha Dee), and the school discourages her from moving forward with an official report after she approaches them about her assault. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that Nate is a star football player at Darlington University, or that even if he weren’t, Darlington discourages rape reports to keep its statistics appealing for incoming students. Jules feels powerless and entirely alone – until she trains herself in martial arts, takes the knowledge of weaponry she gained from her sheriff father and starts taking out the scumbags prowling her campus one by one.
Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) is a snarky, green-haired weed dealer who also happens to be a brilliant hacker. After she sees Jules doing her vigilante thing, Ophelia uses her own skills to track her down. She learns Jules’ motivation for these attacks, and she admires her deeply for it. Ophelia’s never been raped, but she seethes at the injustice, at the way these men do irreparable harm to their victims and walk away unscathed. She’s in awe of Jules’ strength and makes herself indispensable to the cause.
Their partnership is perfect odd-couple buddy vigilante magic. The actresses are both so good. You’ll fall in love with Dearden. She’ll make you laugh out loud in surprise several times an episode, but beneath her irony there’s a deep well of loyalty and love. Bennett is tremendous as Jules – strong when she can be, vulnerable when she allows herself to be, kind and good and profoundly furious at the system that has failed her. Like many women, she is forced to see her rapist every day, to watch him live his life in sunny unconcern while she has lost the girl she once was.
And their supporting cast is just as strong. Ophelia’s “ride or die” is Harris, played by You’re The Worst’s Brandon Mychal Smith. He plays a character that, on the surface, is similar to You’re the Worst’s Sam, but Harris is one of two moral touchstones on Sweet/Vicious, a character so true and free of guile that all of the deception and insanity orbiting him are brought into stark focus whenever he’s on screen. Aisha Dee plays Jules’ own ride or die, Kennedy. Kennedy has no idea that her boyfriend raped her best friend, but she knows that something is wrong, that Jules has been pulling away for a year, and she’ll do anything she can to protect her friend, to bring back the girl she loves and misses.
There’s a real darkness to Sweet/Vicious, an open acknowledgement that, as silly as the premise may sound, this is a show about rape. Nearly every episode opens with a title card, read aloud by Bennett, that says, “This show contains a sexual assault scene that may be difficult for some viewers to see. Viewer discretion is advised.” This is a story that honors survivors of sexual assault, but it’s also a story many of those survivors may not be able to stomach. Sweet/Vicious knows that, and concedes it every week.
It’s empowering, and it’s often very fun, but there’s a vein of awful reality running beneath the fantasy. There’s a lot that’s heightened here – the dialogue, the noir-neon colors, the whole vigilante deal – but the rape culture on this college campus doesn’t feel exaggerated in the slightest. Jules and Ophelia battle dating app and rideshare predators. Some of these are drunk guys at parties looking to score. The process to report the assault, for the survivors who are willing to go through with it, is brutal. The stories of sexual assault on Sweet/Vicious are stories that happen every single day.
Jules’ story, in particular, is harrowing but not unlikely. When we reach the episode that finally flashes back to her assault of the previous year, it plays out just as we might have predicted, but it’s also so much worse. Afterward, Jules sits at her laptop, typing into the search bar “how do you know if you’ve been rap” – but she can’t even finish the word. Nate was her friend, someone she knew and trusted. She deletes it and starts over. “Someone had sex with me when I didn’t want to” – and the results are, of course, all about sexual assault. Because that’s what rape is. Someone had sex with Jules, and she didn’t want him to. It doesn’t matter that she was drinking. It doesn’t matter that he was her friend. It doesn’t matter that she wore a short skirt that night. She didn’t want to have sex with him, she told him she didn’t want to have sex with him, and he raped her. Hell, she would have been too drunk to give consent even if she hadn’t told him no. Either way, it would have been rape.
It’s so hard to watch, and it’s hard to talk about it even here, now. But Sweet/Vicious offers a powerful message, one that can never be said often enough to survivors of sexual assault: we believe you. We hear you, and we believe you. Jules and Ophelia may be ass-kicking vigilantes, but more importantly they’re people who are willing to stand beside those that have suffered sexual assault, to listen to them and to fight for their truth. Ninja masks or no, that’s something we need.
There’s no report of a second season yet, and as satisfying as the Season One finale was, it would be an enormous shame if Sweet/Vicious didn’t return to the air. Jules and Ophelia are just getting started. You can watch the first season for free via MTV, or pay to watch it without ads via Amazon. Watch it, talk about it, write about it. We need more of it.